Weeks ago, my betta fish laid dead at the bottom of the fishbowl. His head was twisted at a weird angle, his tiny eyes were lifeless, and his fins stuck together. I had him for around two and half years. Days prior to his death, he had stopped eating, creating air bubbles, and swimming around.
His death wasn’t a shock, as he was almost four years old when my husband and I bought him on our anniversary. Yet his death took me by surprise. He was the first pet I ever had. He was the only other living thing in my home beside my husband and me and our plants. The betta was my proof that I am capable of nurturing a life.
I could have bought a pet years earlier, but I never had the courage nor I understood the how-to. Growing up in New Delhi, my parents’ home didn’t have even a single plant—indoor or outdoor. My mother considered all forms of life cumbersome. Having pets were beyond her sensibilities. Nobody in my family and extended family had a pet. No one in my neighborhood had a pet. Only people in Bollywood movies and people in expensive cars had pets—usually a dog.
The first time I saw a pet dog was during my undergrad architecture internship in New Delhi. My boss—Suresh Goel invited me to his home to discourage his teenage daughter from contemplating architecture school. I don’t recall the name of the girl or our discussion. I don’t have any recollection of my opinion of such a request. All l remember is a flood of white—the color of rich Indians. A stark contrast to the muddy brown New Delhi where I lived. My boss’s living room had white marble floors, white walls, white sofa, a rectangular glass coffee table, a girl in flowing white latest salwar-kameez, and a white furry dog.
Throughout our discussion, the dog kept on circling and sniffing at the girl’s feet. Whenever the dog approached me, the girl commanded him to behave. A maid dressed in white saree waited hand-and-foot for the dog. I avoided the dog. The maid said that the dog wouldn’t bite and that I should pet him. I didn’t. I didn’t understand the act of petting. Also, I avoided all possibilities of being bitten. I had heard stories that one needed seven large-needle injections for a single dog bite. Moreover, I felt that touching the dog’s white fur would dirty him. Later, I joked that Mr. Goel’s dog led a better life than all of middle-class Indians and me.
Years later, almost at the end of my undergrad, I met pet cats. To help a girlfriend with her final project, I lived at her parents’ home in New Delhi for few days. Her parents were architects. Her mother had two pet cats–big and grayish. The cats meowed all the time, slept near the balcony door, and never approached me. Since then I haven’t met and known of another family in New Delhi who had cats as pets.
I realized the essence of pets when I moved to the US. Almost everyone has pets. Everything is a pet, be it a snail or an orangutan. There are stores dedicated to pet products and grooming. There are designer pet accessories. There are scientific research papers promoting the use of pets for human happiness.
I felt left out. But I was too set in my ways of living to include another living being. I couldn’t get a pet dog. I was not disciplined enough to feed and walk the dog in a timely manner. I didn’t want to clean after the dog. I couldn’t get a cat as I have allergies. I finally settled on a pet fish.
It took me more than a decade to make that commitment. A big fish tank with all the paraphernalia. intimidated me. So I decided to start small. I bought a single betta fish in a 2-gallon fishbowl. He needed to be fed once a day and cleaned once a week. I found it easy to take care of a single fish. I fed him on time; I was almost responsible. When my husband and I traveled, the fish survived few days without food.
I named our betta. I put the fishbowl near the television; like me, he thrived on the flickering TV images. Periodically I updated the gravel and plants of the fishbowl. I added elements to keep him engaged. I talked to the fish. I watched him swim around in the fishbowl until one evening he stopped eating and moving around. He went to the bottom of the fishbowl and laid down.
I faced a new dilemma. How does one dispose of a pet fish? Every TV show taught to flush the fish down the toilet bowl. But I couldn’t have sewage as my pet’s final resting place. My husband suggested THE solution. I bid farewell to the dead betta; my husband buried him in our yard.
I decided not to buy another fish; I didn’t want to feel responsible for the death of another pet. For days, the fishbowl devoid of a fish but filled with gravel and fake plants sat on the counter. I felt a loss, as though something was amiss. Probably I missed the act of feeding the fish every day or probably I missed watching him swim. I can’t pinpoint my feelings. I feel bad when my plants die, but this felt bigger. Probably because this was my first pet.
One Sunday morning I found a betta swimming in the fishbowl. Unbeknownst to me, my husband bought a similar looking betta for me. Since then, slowly I have bonded with the new fish. After much contemplation, I named him same as the first fish. I don’t know if that is right or wrong or cheating. It just feels right to me. I only worry that this fish doesn’t die.